Sorting by

Skip to main content

“Just War on Terror” Revisited

By December 16, 2006 No Comments

In the closing months of 2006, news dispatches from Iraq have grown more discouraging by the week. Casualties continue to mount, both among the military forces of the United States and its allies and in the civilian population. Suicide bombings in crowded markets and near police recruiting stations have become routine. To these are now added the horrors of daily executions of Shiite partisans by Sunni militias and vice versa. The goal announced at the war’s outset nearly four years ago–establishment of a democratic order free from both government and sectarian violence–seems more distant than ever.

Until recently the Iraq war enjoyed widespread support from Americans. “Getting tough with terrorists” played well in the media in 2002 and helped retain control of White House and Congress for the Republicans in 2004. By the time of the by-election in 2006, however, widespread revulsion with the same war assisted the Democrats in gaining control of House, Senate, and state governments from coast to coast. Pundits and politicians of all stripes are now engaged in heated debate over strategy and tactics in Iraq. Even the Bush White House has muted its perpetual optimism, sacked a Defense secretary, and called on seasoned hands for independent advice and a fresh perspective.

Those of us who believed from the outset that the war was a misguided and illfated display of American hubris may be tempted to derive some satisfaction from this disastrous setback for the Bush doctrine of unilateral military ventures in the cause of instant democratization. Just War? But the temptation to schadenfreude should be resisted. The suffering and the heroism of American and Iraqi forces are real. All the options for the future are bleak, and gloating will get us nowhere. Instead we must look for a way out of the present quagmire that will give hope to a nation that has suffered nearly as much from its supposed liberation as from the tyranny that preceded it.

As Christians and as citizens we must also seek to understand just how and why the Iraq war has failed to achieve any of its main objectives. We need to move beyond dismay and condemnation and trace the slow downward slope from the euphoria of a rapid advance to Baghdad into a maelstrom of civil war. The first step in understanding this decline is a clear grasp of how the war in Iraq was initially marketed as an instance of justified resort to war.

Some critics of American foreign policy, internal and external, regarded the rhetoric of justified war against terror as no more than a smokescreen, a deceptive wrapping for ugly realities of oil oligarchy, military adventurism, and racist ideology. But this is too simplistic a reading, burying an element of truth in exaggeration and cynicism. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001, some advocates of the tradition of selectively justified war tried to map out the goals and the limits of a legitimate military response. These accounts deserve our serious attention, whether in the end we find them persuasive or not. Seeing clearly why some regarded the war in Iraq as a just war can help us understand how stalemate has been snatched from the jaws of seeming victory.

Elshtain’s Analysis

Jean Bethke Elshtain’s widely cited monograph, Just War Against Terror (Basic Books, 2003), is a good place to start. Written during the year after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq, it offers an instructive example of the moral foundation on which the war in Iraq was held to rest. Even though its arguments are offered in support of the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Elshtain’s aim is far broader than this. Ranging widely over the history of Christian reflection on justice and resort to war, she argues that “half-measures will not suffice, not in Afghanistan and not in the war against terrorism more generally. …We can and we must become the leading guarantor of a structure of stability and order in a violent world” (173).

The Afghan campaign is only the most immediate application of a broad new duty that is, in the words of Elshtain’s subtitle, “the burden of American power in a violent world.” This is not the White Man’s Burden to bring civilization to the backward races–she will have none of that. But the United States does bear the weight of what could be called (my term, not hers) the Sole Superpower’s Burden, a responsibility not only for punishing aggressors after the fact but also for “preempting horrible things before they occur” (49).

But doesn’t this amount to a new form of imperialism? Perhaps it does, Elshtain muses; if so we need to get over our squeamishness about the word. It is not the bad old imperialism of ruthless conquest and economic exploitation, after all, but something very different.   The case for any just war is undermined, needless to say, by uncertainty about who is its proper target.  The advent of terrorism driven by Islamic fundamentalism threatens to plunge the entire world into a Hobbesian war of each against all and a life of perpetual fear. Salvation from such a fate lies in “the world’s greatest superpower taking on an enormous burden and doing so with a relatively, though not entirely, selfless intent” (166).

To understand the significance of Elshtain’s brief for military intervention wherever freedom is at risk, we need to retrace the steps by which she arrives at her sweeping conclusion. Three elements make up the substance of her argument: an exposition of the historical grounding and moral content of the just war tradition in Christianity; an argument that no such tradition for the restraint of violence exists in Islam; and a rejoinder to arguments that U.S. military actions in the Mideast are unjust.

The third of these elements was clearly very important to the author, who explains in her introduction that “I wrote this book because I have been provoked by much of what has been written and said about terrorism and our response to it.” Most of what she has heard strikes her as naïve, if not inane. Just War Against Terror devotes scores of pages to knocking down one war critic after another, finding them guilty on several counts: distorting the facts, oversimplification, denigration of American motives, and “returning to the tired categories of a previous era” (70).

Some of her criticisms are well-grounded; some are serious but debatable; and some are just silly, as when she castigates critics of the war because they insist on raising questions about third-world debt and military aid to Israel rather than stick to the point of whether the war is just (114). This is the most dated and least interesting element of her study, even though it takes up an inordinate number of pages.

The second element, a characterization of Islam as lacking any historic tradition in restraint of extremist violence, is more difficult to assess. The opponent we face after 9/11, Elshtain insists, is more determined and more dangerous than most Americans are willing to acknowledge. Islamic radicals “loathe us because of who we are and what our society represents.” To imagine that a more equitable Israel policy or expanded aid to underdeveloped Muslim regions would diminish their antagonism is sheer fantasy (3). What we confront is evil itself, in the form of murderous hate, and anyone who cannot see this is probably blinded by a facile relativism (12).

Elshtain’s discussion of Islam eventually moves beyond this level of bluster, and she does not equate Islam itself with Islamist extremism. Yet she insists that the dominant historic traditions of Islam differ sharply from their Christian counterparts in conflating secular and religious authority, in denigrating women, and in seeking expansion by force of arms.

Christianity, not being a law-based religion, never presented a comprehensive, all-encompassing law good for all societies and covering every aspect of human existence. Islam, by contrast, is a law-based faith. In extreme forms, as in Taliban- dominated Afghanistan, all aspects of life were governed by a theocracy based on one law, a severe version of Shari’a, the traditional Islamic holy law. The debate within Islam on the fanatical, literalist application of Shari’a goes forward, and some traditions of legal interpretation within Islam offer alternatives to Taliban-type oppression and repression. At the same time, however, the history of Islam shows an affinity for theocracy that never took root in the West (29-30).

Leaning on the widely influential but similarly slanted analysis of Bernard Lewis, Elshtain gives too dark a picture of Islam and too rosy a view of Christianity. In the medieval era, Moslem caliphs permitted Christians to build churches and practice their faith, while their Moslem counterparts fared much worse under Christian rulers. In the twentieth century, fascism and Nazism arose in Christian and not Moslem societies. Alongside the repressive regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, we can point to Turkey, Indonesia, Mali, and Senegal as Moslem nations striving toward pluralistic democracy. Indeed, one of the tragic ironies of recent events in Iraq is that, by toppling the repressive but secular Baathist regime, the U.S. campaign for democracy has driven out the remnants of the Christian community and emboldened both Shiite and Sunni advocates of theocracy. Islamic extremism is indeed a dangerous force in the contemporary world, but Elshtain seems to have forgotten the parable of the moat and the beam.

It is the first element of Elshtain’s book that makes the most important contribution to the debate over U.S. intervention in the Mideast. This is an extended historical review of the tradition of selectively justified war–the “just war doctrine,” to employ the popular shorthand–and of its relevance to international terrorism. She traces its beginnings to Augustine and ultimately to New Testament teachings. Where most historians of early Christianity see a pronounced shift from pacifism in the early church to conditional approval of war in the era of Constantine, Elshtain regards principled opposition to violence as a position that has never attracted support beyond a few marginal figures.

According to just war doctrine, resort to arms can be countenanced only as a corrective to grave injustice, to protect one’s own society against aggression, or to come to the aid of others. Even if the language of this tradition–declaration by a legitimate authority, just cause, just intent, proportionality, discrimination–comes to us from medieval jurists, its essential tenets are, for Elshtain, a direct application of “love of our neighbor” or, “less theologically,” of “equal regard for others based on human dignity and our common humanity” (59).

The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, Elshtain argues, is unambiguously an instance of just war under traditional criteria. It was declared by a proper authority–the U.S. Congress, which “authorized statutes and appropriated monies for the war effort” and in doing so acted with “right authority enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations charter on self-defense.” It met the standard of last resort, which requires going to war “after deliberation rather than as an immediate reaction.” It was waged with right intention, namely, “to punish wrongdoers and to prevent them from murdering civilians in the future” (61). And what of the criterion that every just war must have a reasonable chance of success in attaining its objectives? There is much uncertainty here, Elshtain admits, but “this prudential consideration is always tricky” (62). All in all, the military defeat of the Taliban is in her eyes a paradigm of the lawful and legitimate use of military force. Its critics, she concludes, misinterpret and misapply the just war standards.

Just War Conundrums

The case for a “just war against terror” that Elshtain here constructs cannot be readily dismissed. Similar arguments have been made, with reference both to Afghanistan and to Iraq, not just by apologists for the Bush administration but also by ethicists and military theorists with no axe to grind. Elshtain lapses now and then into the self-serving fantasy that hers is a solitary voice in a wilderness of anti-war rhetoric–she even declines to name any of the readers who offered critiques of her first draft, because “they did not sign on to take the heat, as I did when I proposed writing this book” (xi). But in fact she spoke for many others, both liberal and conservative in political terms, who regarded the war in Afghanistan as a necessary preventative against future terrorism.

Writing in 2002, Elshtain makes only passing reference to the possibility of military action against the Baathist regime in Iraq, and she does not directly apply the criteria under which she defends the Afghan war to that context. But let us not shift our focus just yet. I want to point out instead some ways in which Elshtain’s willingness to stretch the tradition to warrant a “just war against terror” raises questions about the viability of the moral and theological tradition of selectively justified warfare in the contemporary world.

First, throughout Elshtain’s discussion the clandestine organization known as al-Qaeda is equated wit
h the Taliban regime as essentially comprising a single movement, without evidence or argument in support. The evidence that was offered by the Bush administration revolved around financial support and shared goals, such as the removal of secular governments and foreign military forces from the Mideast.   The very idealism that characterizes just war arguments often makes tragic situations even worse.  There are marked differences of history and character between the two, however. The Taliban is a movement largely of the young and inexperienced, created by men of narrow provincial origins seeking to restore a pure Islam that exists only in their imaginations. Al-Qaeda leaders, by contrast, are widely traveled and highly educated cosmopolitan men from well-placed families whose revulsion against Western values arises from personal experience as much as from ideology. Events since 2002 suggest that the link between them was exaggerated. Taliban forces have flourished in the disorder of postwar Afghanistan and, by late 2006, have established effective control over many towns and cities, but there is little evidence of efforts to promote terrorism elsewhere. The latter remains the central goal of al-Qaeda, but its very weakness, as shown by the infrequency of successful attacks, gives us further reason to distinguish it from the increasingly powerful Taliban movement.

The case for any just war is undermined, needless to say, by uncertainty about who is its proper target. To be sure, the clandestine nature of Islamist extremist movements makes it difficult to zero in on legitimate targets of punitive or preventive action. Al- Qaeda does not send its troops into the field in uniform to meet its adversary, and it is unreasonable to insist that there can be no just war except under such circumstances. Yet Elshtain’s failure even to consider the issue of whether the Afghan war was directed against those genuinely responsible for past terrorist acts and present threats seriously weakens her argument.

Each of the other criteria for just war is invoked, in Elshtain’s account, in a loose and permissive way. “The criterion of last resort does not compel a government to try everything else in actual fact but rather to explore other options before concluding that none seems appropriate or viable” (61). In effect, she insists, this criterion requires no more than an unspecified time of deliberation before troops are sent in. The requirement of legitimate authority is met, she argues, by Congressional action as authorized by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. That article applies only to cases of self-defense, however, and explicitly reserves for the U.N. itself the authority to assess whether war is warranted in other circumstances. Initiating a war halfway around the globe and calling it self-defense seems duplicitous, but that is Elshtain’s position.

With reference to the jus in bello requirements of proportionality and discrimination, Elshtain rightly calls attention to the efforts of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to limit collateral damage, rebuild infrastructure, and distinguish as clearly as circumstances permit between enemy forces and the civilian population. More questionable is her assertion that “no institution in America pays more attention to ethical restraint on the use of force than does the U.S. military.” (One wonders how the nation’s police chiefs would respond.) But discrimination, she argues, does not restrict us to punitive action but encompasses preventive measures as well, for “preventing future attacks is a critical motivation” in a just war (67). Where many defenders of the just war doctrine have recoiled in horror at recent shifts in U.S. military doctrine to embrace not just preemptive but preventive war, Elshtain sees in this move nothing more than a needed adjustment of traditional criteria to contemporary challenges.

In all of these areas, one might argue that Elshtain is simply too careless in applying the stringent restrictions of the just war doctrine and too eager to pronounce a blessing on a particular military campaign. But the problems that her account reveals go deeper than this. They teach us important lessons about the viability and the force of the just war tradition in an unstable and dangerous world.

My criticisms of the tradition should not be construed as a recommendation that its requirements be ignored or set aside–far from it. The restraints that just war rules impose on military action remain essential bulwarks against wanton and pointless excess in war. Without question the sustained and serious determination of American military authorities to target their munitions with precision, evacuate civilians from war zones, and protect essential infrastructure have made life more tolerable for those engulfed in recent wars.

And yet we must also take note that the very idealism that characterizes just war arguments often makes tragic situations even worse. In Afghanistan, for example, Elshtain and others insisted that U.S. intervention was essential to protect the human dignity of the victims of Taliban repression.   Elshtain exemplifies the tendency of just war advocates to adjust the requirements of the tradition to fit political and military priorities rather than set limits firmly.  But the eventual outcome of U.S. military action, as documented in recent news reports, has been a de facto partition between a few urban areas, where the recently elected government retains a fragile grip on power, and the rest of the country, where warlords and Taliban cells have regained the upper hand. At a public discussion of “Afghanistan and the War on Terrorism” sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace in early November, several speakers agreed that Taliban forces now “find an increasingly hospitable environment as popular support for the central government has eroded due to its incompetence, its corruption, and its failure to extend its authority much beyond Kabul.” Suicide bombings, unknown in Afghanistan before 2002, now occur every few days. (Beth Ellen Cole and Jorge Aquilar, USI Peace Briefing, Nov. 2006.) Had the U.S. instead waged a war of occupation leading to the installation of a military government controlled by the U.S.–clearly prohibited under just war rules–the outcome might well have brought far more peace and stability. Good intentions may blind us to harsh realities.

Going into Iraq

Let us turn now briefly to the current war in Iraq to explore these lessons further. The stated reasons for U.S. action were never clearly grounded in just war criteria, and indeed the motivating reasons offered by the Bush administration shifted month by month in the period leading up to March 2003–from “regime change” to precluding the development of nuclear weapons to controlling stockpiles of conventional or biological weapons. Behind all of these specific claims, however, one could discern a consistent theme: it was the duty of the U.S. to rescue the people of Iraq from a brutal tyrant. The very nobility of this goal, as understood by civilian and military leaders in the Bush administration, dictated the mode of intervention: a rapid advance with relatively limited forces to Baghdad, followed by a benign and short-lived period of transition while the grateful population agreed on its democratic future.

In recent months an entire bookshelf of new studies have demonstrated just how far this vision of a war of liberation deviated from reality. Thomas Ricks has documented in numbing detail in his book Fiasco (Penguin Press, 2006) the persistent refusal of military commanders to heed the lessons learned in other unconventional wars. Textbooks used in military academies recount, for example, the lesson of Vietnam that maximum force presence with minimum violence is a winning strategy in counterinsurgency warfare; but U.S. tactics in Iraq repeatedly combined minimum force presence with maximum violence.

The reasons why a successful initial campaign has been slowly transmuted into a hopeless stalemate are complex, but one of them, clearly, was the persistent fantasy that American ideals of democracy would quickly take root in a new Iraq. As in Afghanistan, a war that was undertaken for coldly nationalistic purposes would have been conducted differently and might well have met its objectives–protection of oil supplies, for example, and restraint of Iranian militarism–far more successfully, even if a greater sacrifice of principle would have been entailed.

Having embraced a broad ideal of military action to protect human dignity, Elshtain also exemplifies the tendency of just war advocates to adjust the requirements of the tradition to fit political and military priorities rather than set limits firmly. If self-defense encompasses aggressive military action around the globe; if discrimination permits targeting of future combatants as well as known aggressors; if “last resort” means only that some alternatives to war have been discussed and rejected–when the just war doctrine is as flexible as this, it has ceased to function as a set of firm moral limits. It contributes little more than a set of morally appealing concepts in which to couch one’s already determined military and geopolitical objectives.

Can there be a just war against terror? Elshtain’s case for such a war in Afghanistan is persuasive in some respects, deeply compromised in others. The transmutation to Iraq of her argument for preventive war in service of American ideals shows even more clearly how ambiguous and potentially misleading the application of this tradition to present contexts can be. If indeed there are ways of waging a just war to punish and prevent terrorism, we need a far more satisfactory account of what they are.

Or perhaps the lesson we should draw from the dismal failure of the effort to liberate Iraq is that, in a world of factional violence and suicidal terrorism, the very notion that national military forces can be used in a limited and effective way to right international wrongs has become a dangerous illusion. Elshtain cites with approval George Will’s disparagement of international courts as “ill suited to this moment, when the primacy of the nationstate needs to be reaffirmed” in order to combat terrorism (164). The recent history of Afghanistan and Iraq suggests just the contrary: that unilateral use of force by one nation-state, however powerful, is ultimately self-defeating.

David Hoekema is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
David A. Hoekema

David A. Hoekema

David A. Hoekema is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and retired Academic Dean at Calvin University, and, in the winter, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona.  His most recent book, We Are the Voice of the Grass (Oxford University Press), recounts the tireless work of Christians and Muslims who came together to strive for an end to a brutal civil war in Uganda. In light of recent developments in the CRCNA, he is now a member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, and he also participates in the worship life of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Grand Haven. Hiking, bicycling, choral music, old-timey string bands, and conversation with Christians whose minds and hearts are open to all are among the things that gladden his heart.